October 24, 2004,a little after midnight, a Learjet crew prepared to depart from Brown Field (KSDM) near San Diego, CA, enroute to Albuquerque, NM (KABQ). Brown tower closed at 2000 and the crew was unable to receive Socal Departure from the ground. The crew elected to depart VFR under a 2000 foot overcast and pick up their IFR clearance in the air. The flight crew had a cellular telephone and a satellite telephone on board the airplane, so they could have received a clearance from Flight Service by calling (888) 766-8267.
During the departure briefing and crew discussion, the captain stated that he wanted to depart from runway 8 to avoid flying over the city of San Diego. He also stated that a runway 8 departure would place the flight on a heading straight toward ABQ, and the copilot agreed this reasoning. They did not follow the Obstacle Departure Procedure (ODP), shown above, and were apparently unaware of the San Ysidro Mountains to the East.
A review of radar data revealed that the airplane climbed to about 2,300 feet mean sea level (MSL) and its flight track remained approximately straight out from the departure runway. The crew stayed below the overcast, remaining VFR, while they waited for their IFR clearance. The Socal controller identified the Learjet and instructed the flight crew to turn to a heading of 020°, maintain VFR, and expect an IFR clearance above 5,000 feet MSL. The captain acknowledged the heading instructions, but that was the last communication from the Learjet crew, having struck the mountains.
A review of radar data revealed that, at the time the controller issued the instructions, the flight was about 3.5 nautical miles west of the mountains, and the heading issued by the controller resulted in a flight track that continued toward the mountains.
There’s lots of blame to go around, including the Socal controller.
Although the flight crew is responsible for maintaining terrain clearance while operating under VFR, FAA Order 7110.65P, chapter 4-2-8, states that, when an aircraft is operating under VFR below minimum IFR altitudes and the flight crew requests an IFR clearance, the controller should ask the crew members if they would be able to maintain terrain and obstruction clearance during the climb to the minimum IFR altitude. The order also states that, if the controller provides an instruction (such as turn to a heading of 020º), the responsibility for terrain clearance is transferred to the FAA. The order advises controllers not to “assign (or imply) specific course guidance that will (or could) be in effect below the minimum vectoring altitude (MVA) or minimum enroute altitude (MEA).”
The controller had elected not to inform the crew of the rising terrain, in spite of receiving a low altitude alert. His reasoning was that “it was the flight crew’s responsibility to avoid terrain when operating under VFR”. The controller was not injured.
Please be safe when you fly and make great, professional decisions!!
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